More than 150 retired military officers, including eight former chiefs of the Army, Navy and Air Force, have written to the President “to take all necessary steps to urgently direct all political parties that they must forthwith desist from using the military, military uniforms or symbols, and any actions by military formations or personnel, for political purposes or to further their political agendas”.
The letter, copied to the Chief Election Commissioner, was emailed to the President asking him “to ensure that the secular and apolitical character of our Armed Forces is preserved”. It states that notifications issued by the Election Commission to UP CM Yogi Adityanath on the matter “do not appear to have resulted in any substantive change of behaviour and practice on the ground”.
Among the eight former service chiefs who reportedly signed the letter are three former Army chiefs, Generals S F Rodrigues, Shankar Roy Chowdhury and Deepak Kapoor; four Navy chiefs, Admiral Laxminarayan Ramdas, Vishnu Bhagwat, Arun Prakash and Sureesh Mehta; and one former Air Force chief, Air Chief Marshal N C Suri.
General Rodrigues and Air Chief Marshal Suri later denied giving consent to the letter. The veterans who compiled the letter, however, shared the email correspondence between Admiral L Ramdas and these two officers with The Indian Express, showing their endorsement of the letter to the President.
Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman called the letter “condemnable”, stating that “two senior officers said they have not given consent. It is worrying that fake letters being signed by vested groups”. She did not respond when asked about the veterans who said they had signed the letter to the President.
Admiral Ramdas had earlier complained to the Chief Election Commissioner about the misuse of the name of the armed forces by the ruling party. Admiral Vishnu Bhagwat was controversially sacked by the NDA government in 1998 — which was the first instance of a military chief being sacked in independent India.
General Rodrigues, who was Army chief from 1990 to 1993, was the governor of Punjab from 2004 to 2010 while General Roy Chowdhury served as an independent member of Rajya Sabha from West Bengal from 1999 to 2005.
The military veterans referred to “the unusual and completely unacceptable practice of political leaders taking credit for military operations like cross-border strikes, and even going so far as to claim the Armed Forces to be ‘Modi ji ki Sena’. This is in addition to media pictures of election platforms and campaigns in which party workers are seen wearing military uniforms; and posters and images with pictures of soldiers and especially of Indian Air Force Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman, displayed.”
They said that “given the prevailing environment where political parties and candidates seem to be acting in total disregard of the declaration of the ‘model code of conduct’, we fear that such incidents may only increase as polling day draws near”.
Earlier, the misuse of armed forces for electoral purposes was flagged by the then Army Chief, General V P Malik, in the aftermath of the 1999 Kargil War when the NDA government under A B Vajpayee was seeking re-election. In his book ‘Kargil: From Surprise to Victory’, General Malik wrote that he complained to Vajpayee about BJP election posters that featured the three military chiefs. Vajpayee ensured that it did not happen again.
In their letter released late Thursday, the military veterans said that “those in active service (men and women of all ranks in the Army, Navy and Air Force) cannot speak out, even on matters which might affect their interests adversely, since they are subject to military law and are governed by the parliamentary Acts of their respective Service”, and “it is for this reason that we write to bring to your attention. some concerns which have caused considerable alarm and disquiet among both the serving and the retired personnel of our Forces.”
Military veterans have been seen as a proxy for serving military personnel, speaking on their behalf on many issues in the past few years.